Scents of Time

Jasmine, I pondered. Or possibly Lily? Or, what was this one that had toppled over at the back? My fingers scrabbled determinedly into the reaches of my scented candle cupboard. Ah, Sensual Cotton. Perhaps that would best set the mood this evening.

You did read that correctly – I actually possess a scented candle cupboard. Other women devote closets to their shoe or handbag hoards; my fixation is with scented candles. I can’t pass a gift shop without seeking out a new fragrance for my collection.

Decisions, decisions. I added Sensual Cotton, pretty and powder blue with its overtones of fresh washing, to the line-up already on the carpet next to me. I experienced a silly spurt of glee seeing them all in formation, like colourful soldiers, their assorted heights reflecting the lengths of time each had been lit.

Patrick had been working away and was on his way home. On a romantic whim, I had decided to cook an intricate dinner involving couscous and butternut squash. One of these candles surrounding me on the floor would, I hoped, set the scene to perfection. An aroma can be as powerful as a piece of music at both evoking and creating memories.

I picked up the first in line. Lemon. One of my favourites, melted to virtually a stub. A purchase made immediately after our week in Italy, so impatient had I been to relive our holiday evenings dining amidst those heady Tuscan lemon groves.

Lily. Patrick bought me a sensational bunch of lilies on our first Valentine’s Day. “I suppose they should be roses really,” he’d said, but I vigorously disagreed. To me, roses are rather a cliché, and their smug, thorny quality leaves me cold.

It’s not just that – my ex-boyfriend, Mark, bought roses for me. And for the girl he was seeing behind my back. I might never have found out had the florist not mixed up our cards. He gave me a rose scented candle too. That one was consigned to the bin. Along with his flowers.

I shook my head, attempting to dislodge the memory.

Moving on, I took a lungful of mellow Coconut Breeze. It spoke to me of beaches, suncream and my favourite drink, rum.

Vanilla and Nutmeg, the first candle I ever bought, for the first flat I rented, with my sister, over a butcher’s shop. This isn’t that actual candle; I’ve burned many successors to the one which masked those raw meat wafts.

I can see that flat, and the yard outside, in my mind’s eye. The hanging basket drooping from a hook on the wobbly fence, containing indistinguishable husks of what had once been flowers. We had many fun times there, despite its off-putting frontage.

Then came a cerise monstrosity with an unlit wick, that I initially couldn’t place. “Raspberry Blush,” proclaimed the label. I cringed at both the name and its artificially fruity stench. Not something I would have chosen myself. A village fete raffle prize, now I came to think of it.

Chocolate. Do I really need to explain the appeal of that one?

Mulled wine. I reserve that for Christmas only.

Licorice. Actually that tends to remain in the cupboard as it’s a reminder I once knocked it over and scorched the living room carpet. I never confessed my mishap to Patrick, just slyly relocated the coffee table over the mark.

Strawberries and Cream. My favourite dessert, evocative of childhood and summer, and picnics with Mum, Dad and Georgina, my sister.

Cinnamon. That was the topping I sprinkled on to my coffee on our first semi-official date, when Patrick invited me impromptu to Starbucks after work.

We met in a lift, would you believe. We worked for different companies in the same building, him on the fourth floor, me on the tenth. He was wearing amber aftershave that day. Amber Musk – that’s another of my favourite candles.

Ah, now Jasmine. My mind instantly drifted to Egypt, where the exotic white flower had been in glorious bloom that night he produced a tiny box at dinner and asked, “Roberta, will you marry me?” I stole a peek at my beautiful diamond now, still a novelty on my left hand. I was planning a jasmine bridal bouquet.

Pine. Walks in the forest, in that sweet, bracing air. Our first winter together. Patrick and I in woolly hats and gloves, cuddling and giggling together like one of those nauseating couples in films set at Christmas when it’s permanently snowing.

Mint. The smell of Granny’s garden from my childhood. She used to grow tons of the stuff. Georgina and I would play amongst it. Dear Granny. She had been poorly of late but I dearly hoped she would be able to make it to the wedding.

******

By the time Patrick arrived home, my chosen Jasmine was infusing the lounge with its blossom scent.

“Hi darling. Ooh, I’ve missed you. But eek, what’s that smell?”

“Jasmine,” I replied, proudly kissing him. I traced my finger flirtatiously down his lapel. Mmm, he was wearing the amber aftershave again. “Doesn’t it take you back to a certain evening in Egypt?”

“Of course. It’s just there’s definite overtones of something else there. You haven’t been setting fire to the carpet again, have you?”

“You knew about that?” I was too taken aback to deny it.

“Ah, we need a new carpet in here anyway.”

I gave a little yelp and zoomed into the kitchen. “The dinner!”

“Don’t worry, Roberta,” Patrick consoled as I tipped cremated pellets of couscous into the bin.

“I suppose I’m not much of a cook, am I really?” Come to think of it, a fair number of my candle aromas evoke occasions spent in restaurants or on holidays.

Patrick unearthed a Chinese restaurant menu from a drawer. “Hey, darling, check out the name of this one.”

The Jasmine Palace. I couldn’t help but smile. The scent would carry new connotations now.

I blew out the candle as Patrick booked us a table.

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Heather’s Headache

‘I won’t be in today,’ Heather whined, in a suitably pathetic tone. She pointlessly massaged her forehead, as though Eric, her boss, could somehow see down the phone. ‘Got the most appalling headache. I’m really sorry.’

Eric, who she had caught on his mobile en route to the office, was all sympathy, as she’d anticipated. ‘And what a shame you’ll miss Paula,’ he added.

‘Yes, isn’t it?’ Grinning now, Heather crossed her fingers behind her back. ‘Oh well, we’ll catch up some other time, I’m sure. Hopefully see you tomorrow, Eric. I’m sure I’ll be much better by then.’

‘Don’t rush back if you’re not up to it, though.’

She put the phone down and punched the air gleefully, her recovery apparently instant and miraculous.

Paula was the very reason for Heather’s illicit sickie. She was an ex-colleague who was today making one of her, thankfully rare, visits to the office. A lunchtime table was booked at the local wine bar – a pub wouldn’t be stylish enough for Paula – so her former workmates could worship her over quiche and chardonnay.

Heather couldn’t understand why the braying monster had been so highly thought of before leaving the company three years ago to marry an accountant, whose money she liked to spend in designer shops, and give birth to Sasha and Saffron, their beautiful and gifted twins.

When she ‘worked’ there – Heather used the term loosely – Paula’s days were spent gossiping with chums on the phone, filing her claw-like nails, taking extended lunch breaks and leaving her jobs for others, usually Heather, to complete. She had soft-hearted Eric wrapped around her little finger.

Yes, the office was a far pleasanter place without her yappy, Yorkshire terrier voice and piercing laugh. And today Heather would be spared the bagfuls of photos from Paula’s latest Caribbean holiday, and the pitying remarks about her being single. ‘Still on your own? Bless. You can’t hang about much longer, though. Best thing that ever happened to me, the hubby and kiddies.’

Smiling, Heather curled herself up on the sofa for a blissfully idle day of TV.

******

Why was there never anything on when you were at home all day? After flicking irritably through medical documentaries and endless snooker, Heather jabbed the off button and picked up an old magazine to pass the time instead.

She reread it in ten minutes, then decided to make coffee. The biscuit tin proved irresistible, but in reaching up to pull it from the cupboard she managed to dislodge a mug, sending it hurtling to the tiled kitchen floor.

While sweeping the scattered shards into the dustpan, Heather tried to stop herself wondering whether sickies were in fact overrated.

It was lunchtime when she spotted she was low on loo roll. How infuriating, she’d only done the shopping yesterday. Oh well, her colleagues and dear Paula would be safely ensconced in the wine bar by now, so she could sneak into town to stock up.

Even if it did mean changing out of the pyjamas she was still lazily wearing.

******

Emerging from Tesco, Heather noticed the sale posters were still splashed across River Island’s window. Another five minutes, she told herself, just to see if they still had that turquoise top she hadn’t had time to try on at the weekend in her size.

They did. Plus numerous other alluring bargains. This was more like it, she thought, greatly perking up after her uninspiring morning.

Heather loved the jazzy, cool feel of new carrier bags, especially ones full of clothes, and virtually bounced out of River Island swinging them. Her workmates were probably on dessert now, and passing round the eighty-fifth picture of the twins in matching pink sunhats building artistic sandcastles.

‘Heather!’ The unmistakable voice stabbed right through her head.

A vision with shimmering black hair and a rind of make-up was rocketing towards her. Heather found herself ensnared in a hug.

‘Paula?’ She blanched and spluttered. ‘But how come…I thought you were meant to be…’

‘Oh of course, you won’t have heard. When Eric got to the office this morning he found it had flooded overnight. Leaky tap in the kitchen, apparently. How funny!’ Paula screeched with laughter. ‘He’s sent everybody home while he sorts things out with the plumbers, and had to cancel me for today. But I’ve rearranged for a week on Thursday.’

‘A flood? Is there much damage done?’

‘Not a lot apparently, apart from the carpet being sodden. And a bit whiffy, I imagine. Mind you, I told Eric years ago he ought to get rid of the threadbare thing. How are things with you, anyway? Met anyone sexy yet?’

‘I’m quite happy being single,’ Heather beamed defiantly. Inside she seethed about her wasted sick day, and the fact she couldn’t very well take another one next Thursday so would be unavoidably lunching with poisonous Paula after all.

‘How funny! Yes, it’s a shame I didn’t get to see all the gang today. Got some super piccies of Sasha and Saffy. Little poppets. You should hear some of the things they can say now. The other day – ’

‘Where are the girls now?’ Heather interrupted.

Paula appeared surprised at the question. ‘With the nanny, of course. What are you doing out, by the way? Eric told me you were on your sick bed. Headache worn off, has it?’ Her face was slappably smug.

‘I just nipped out for loo roll. And, er, Nurofen.’

‘Oh yeah, and a new wardrobe, by the look of it.’ Paula’s knowing gaze landed on the two heavy River Island bags Heather was hopelessly concealing behind her leg. ‘How funny! Well I won’t tell.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘If you let me treat you to a cappuccino, that is.’

‘I should be getting back,’ Heather started to feebly protest.

‘Don’t be wet. I can afford it, after all. And I’m dying to show someone these photos. Come on.’

As she was frogmarched into Starbucks, Heather felt the agonising onset of a genuine headache.

TV Spa-Dom

TV Spa-Dom

 

** Published in My Weekly magazine under new title of Girlie Weekend on 1st May 2010!!! **

“What’s it to be then – Funky Watermelon or Electric Moonfruit?”

“Got to be the Moonfruit,” I insisted, “I’m in a cerise mood today.”

“OK.”

“Why do eyeshadow colours have such daft names anyway?” I asked of Jasmine the beautician.

As she laughed, while smearing my eyelids with the oddly-titled shadow, her new assistant, Kerry, tottered in with a silver tray bearing champagne and two crystal flutes. She placed one carefully before me and one before my mother, sitting next to me. Her hands were trembling, bless her!

“Aw, you shouldn’t have.” I was half embarrassed and half loving it. These Shirley Bassey moments are precisely what I aspired to during my childhood.

“Well it’s not every day we get a glamorous superstar in,” Kerry quaked.

“I’m hardly that,” I cackled. I’m still genuinely thrown by such comments.

“Cheers then, our Mel.” Mum chinked glasses with me. “And I think you ought to try that peachier blusher this time. It makes you look less, well, brassy.”

“Cheers Mum. You could be right.” She usually is. I examined the rainbow of hues in Jasmine’s palette.

Mum is my heroine. We’ve been a close unit since Dad passed away in 1974.  I was a vulnerable kid of nine then, and haven’t always been the easiest of offspring since.

While Mum was out slaving for a wage at Simpson’s sweet factory, I’d be sneaking in her room, swathing my adolescent body in her dresses, splodging her poor lipsticks across my mouth, posturing in the mirror and dreaming of stardom.

Years later, it was she who actually thought up my stage name Melba Most; she who – despite being exhausted from her Simpson’s shift – would stay up all night sewing sequins on my costumes for those pub cabaret ‘nites;’ she who was on the front row the night I won The Big Big Talent Show – and the front row of every show I’ve done since.

Hence I love being able to treat her these days. I take her every couple of months to Swinley Grange.  It’s one of Britain’s plushest health spas, and my favourite retreat.

I’ll never forget her face the first time she entered the Queen Anne Suite, which I always book for us now. It’s bigger than Mum’s flat, with its own private staircase, leading up to a vast lounge, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and even a small sauna.

“What d’you wanna go splurging your cash like this for? A normal room would have done.  Well a caravan in Prestatyn would have done, actually.”

“You’re worth more than that, Mum. We went without for so many years, now I fully intend to relish going with.”

I’m not always a pampered guest at Swinley Grange. I also perform there often.

“What have you been doing today, Mrs Corns?” Kerry asked Mum, while buffing her cheeks with blusher.

“Ooh, well me and Mel had a sauna before breakfast – got our own, y’know – later, we did a bit of swimming, went in the Jacuzzi, and after that a tai chi class. Then we got our legs waxed. Ouch! I wasn’t too sure about that – and I haven’t even got as much hair as our Mel.”

Neither of us could talk much then, as Jasmine was painting my lips with Immoral Coral, while Kerry daubed Mum’s with Lippy Chick.

“All finished!” Mum beamed in her chair. She looked so transformed and fabulous, I swelled with pride.

“I’m nearly there.” Jasmine carefully slotted my blonde bouffant wig on my head, and then I actually was ‘there.’ Now it was Mum’s turn to be proud.

“Our Melvyn’s always loved dressing up, haven’t you, son?”

“Ready for your audience?” Kerry breathed, whipping off the cape that’s been protecting my stunning frock. “One last thing, though – don’t suppose there’s any chance of an autograph?”

“For you, darling, anything.” I squiggled my felt-tipped name across the shiny poster which proclaimed: “Swinley Grange presents its hot hen night cabaret – starring the UK’s top drag queen Melba Most and the Italian Stallions!”

Yes, I thought, rising from the chair and letting my scarlet skirts fan into a train behind me, life didn’t always glitter for little Melvyn Corns. He has come a long way.

Flash Harry

Flash Harry

 
** Published in Yours magazine under new title of Where Did You Get That Hat? on 20th October 2009!!!

Shona scanned the fun run crowd for Harry’s hat.

The closed-off high street was an ocean of heads on this humid June Sunday, two thousand heads to be precise, but a wizard’s hat ought still to be conspicuous. She hoped so – it was her only way of recognising the unfamiliar Harry.

Shona limbered up self-consciously as she wove through the runners and walkers. She hadn’t anticipated being alone. Nigel, a workmate, was to be her running mate – until this morning when he’d wheezily phoned her.

‘Won’t be up to it, sorry. Gone down with a stinking cold. Doubt I’ll be in work tomorrow either.’

‘No worries, Nige. Dose yourself up and get back to bed.’

‘My neighbour Harry mentioned he’s doing it, though, if you want company. He’ll go at your pace. He’s been very poorly, so having to take it easy.’

‘How will I know him?’

‘You shouldn’t miss him,’ Nigel spluttered, ‘says he’ll be wearing a wizard’s hat. Had it years apparently, it’s a good luck thing.’ He was about to say more, but his voice gave way to a torrent of breathless coughs.

‘You get back to bed, Nige,’ Shona sympathised, ‘I’ll find him.’

She spotted the enormous pointed hat bobbing near the starting line. She was rather surprised to find its owner amongst the mainly serious runners who flocked to the front of the crush, intent on completing their six miles in speedy times. Silly costumes tended to be worn by the less competitive participants nearer the back.

She approached the man who, with his back to her, was doing a sedate jog on the spot.

‘Excuse me. Harry?’

‘Yes?’ He turned round, and Shona gaped. Harry looked at least eighty.

Nigel had to be having a laugh. ‘He’ll go at your pace’ indeed. Yeah right, she may be no Kelly Holmes but she didn’t quite need a Zimmer frame to manage six miles. Still, she’d committed herself now, no harm being pleasant to the old boy.

‘I’m Shona.’ She instinctively adopted the loud, slow tone she used with her hard-of-hearing grandpa. ‘I work with Nigel.’

‘Nigel?’

‘He should have been here too, of course, but he’s not very well. He told me to look out for you.’

‘Well how do you do, Shona?  I hope you can keep up with me.’ Harry gave Shona an odd look when she laughed at this.

She decided he was a sweet soul, obviously with a sense of humour, and that she would remain with him today, if only to ensure he survived the course.

‘How are you feeling?’ she yelled, loath to ask him direct questions about the nature of his illness.

Harry looked slightly baffled again. ‘Never better, my dear. I’m seventy-eight and on top form.’

‘Seventy-eight? Wow!’

‘Eh up, we’re about to get going.’  He patted her arm bossily and bent his tiny knees into a racing position.

When the starting gun blasted, the runners at the front zoomed away like hares – including Harry. Shona, concerned her new friend had failed to pace himself, sped up to keep alongside him.

By the one-mile mark, though, he wasn’t even panting. Unlike Shona.

‘You all right there, dear?’ he enquired.

‘Mnff,’ she managed.

‘Can be a bit of a struggle when it’s muggy like this, eh?’ Harry smiled sympathetically. Shona was sopping with perspiration. ‘I must admit, though, I don’t usually bother with these short distance events. I’m more of a marathon man.’

Marathons?’

‘Done London a few times. Few half marathons too – Great North Run, things like that. I like to support this one, though. The charity was so marvellous with my grandson.’

Grandson?’ Shona puffed, forced to slow to a trot. This annual run was in aid of a cancer trust. Somewhere in the corner of Shona’s mind a penny was dropping.

‘Yes, he’s taking part today, with a few pals. Now if you don’t mind, I’d quite like to try and beat my time from last year so I’m going to get a wriggle on.’

‘No problem.’ Oh bliss, she could stop pushing herself to keep up with him. ‘See you at the finish line.’

‘Cheerio Shona,’ Harry gave a backwards wave as he sprinted away on his sparrow legs, ‘good luck.’

        ******

‘The old man left you standing then?’

Four miles on, Shona had abandoned all pretence of running and was massaging her side, suffering from stitch, as floods of people overtook her. She turned to encounter a young man with toffee-coloured eyes and the most lovable smile. Wearing a wizard’s hat.

‘You wouldn’t be Harry’s grandson, by any chance?’

He broke away slightly from the two friends who accompanied him. ‘Harry junior. And I gather you’re Shona.’

Shona couldn’t help laughing, despite feeling like a crimson, melting mess beneath his gaze. ‘Your grandpa must think I’m crackers. So you’re Nigel’s neighbour. He just told me to look out for a wizard’s hat.’

‘He wouldn’t know I had one done for Gramps as well.’ Shona noticed how attractively Harry’s hair curled on his damp forehead beneath the hat. ‘I spotted you down the front talking to Gramps. We stuck at the back, let the serious runners go on ahead. I guessed you were Nige’s colleague but couldn’t catch up to say hello until now.’

‘Harry senior ran me ragged.’

‘Oh, he’ll have finished and be enjoying a cup of tea somewhere by now. He’s such an inspiration to me. I only took up jogging after I got the all-clear three months ago.’

‘I could do with doing the same,’ Shona admitted, humbled by what she had seen today, ‘I’ve got no excuse to be out of breath.’

‘Well I run on Tuesday evenings,’ Harry looked at her hopefully, ‘if you fancy joining me.’

‘Tuesdays sound good.’

‘We could replace a few calories by going for a bite to eat afterwards.’

Shona flushed, and not from the exertion of running. ‘Can’t wait.’

Harry senior was cheering them on as they crossed the finish line together.

Puppet Love

Puppet Love
A quirky tale of chav and cuddly romance

 

‘I’m tellin’ you, this Zippy is knackered!’

To demonstrate, Sammy’s customer pinched the cuddly toy’s squashy belly.  Where the raucous Rainbow character should have let rip with a Dalek-esque boastful cackle, he emitted a mere stutter of robotic bleeps.

‘See!  This was sold to me as a talking Zippy – ’ the girl fixed her cat-green eyes on the young market trader, ‘but he don’t talk,’ she added unnecessarily, though with a flirtatious tinge to her take-no-shit demeanour, which hinted at an interest in Sammy.  ‘Now can I get me money back?’

Marlene, the nosy, bubble-permed purveyor of kinky rubber and stockings at the stall next to Sammy’s, sniggered annoyingly at this.

‘Got a receipt?’  Sammy teased, ignoring her.  He was liking this girl, with the corkscrew black hair and freckled, tanned complexion.  She was perking up his dismal Monday.  She may be patronising an indoor market now, but her clothes were clearly purchases from swisher outlets.  The tight cut of the blue designer T-shirt and black jeans accentuated her toned, sunbed-kissed figure.  Her accent was unmistakably Dudley, but refined by good education.  She intrigued Sam. 

‘Wasn’t given one,’ the tanned stunner snapped.

‘No refund then, flower, sorry.’  Sammy’s Black Country voice was – like hers – bluff but with a teasing edge.  His grin, and perpetually flickering eyebrows, gave his narrow face a kind, mischievous appearance.

‘But his battery’s flat!’  The stunner spoke with faint distress, as might a mother whose toddler had whooping cough.  ‘Why don’t you get the chap who served me last week out here – he’d recognise me.’

‘Sorry, love, no can do.’  She was persistent, this one.  ‘That would have been me dad – and he’s in Spain now.  Not that the old man would’ve helped anyhow – he’s as tight as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm.  Technically, Zippy counts as used goods an’ all.  If yo bought it last week and yo’m only just bringing it back now, how do I know yo ai’ bin a-squeezin’ him all week and flattened his little battery?’

The girl grinned wryly back, attracted in turn to this lanky, tuft-headed lad with the kindly face and the earring.

Sammy had been assisting his parents to run their stall in the Colley Centre for eight years, since leaving school at sixteen. 

Merv and Janice had made the audacious foray into market trading fifteen years ago – following Merv’s redundancy from a colossally different profession.  They’d struggled at first – it was an unconventional career move, to say the least, for he’d failed to find a job even remotely similar to his former one.  He thrived, though, in an environment where, unlike some of his ex-colleagues, nobody was liable to recognise him and thus he attracted no unfriendly attention.  These struggles consequently paid off, and the couple had turned the stall into a fruitful venture. 

The family wares were cuddly toys and memorabilia from retro children’s programmes.  Other traders in this bustling centre, in Brierley Hill, plied anything from fish to wigs; stationery to body jewellery; pet food to jeans.

Sammy met scores of people during his long, hectic days, but his was often a lonely, workaholic life.  Up at six AM, home at seven PM – and in between he worked with his parents, which had a tendency to cramp what style he could lay claim to.  His lifestyle wasn’t always conducive to romance – and his sometimes brash demeanour belied his shortage of opposite-sex experience.  Hence he greeted the chance to shed his shell now they were on holiday.

‘So you couldn’t give me any sort of refund,’ the girl attempted pouty, wheedly tactics, ‘or let me swap him for another Zippy?’ 

Sammy shook his head, but with a boyishly regretful expression.  He was normally firmer with customers about the no-refund policy, but in this case he would make an exception.
 
‘We’re not due no more Zippys ’til a week on Friday.  I could swap him for a Sooty, if you like!  No, tell you what – a Sooty and a Sweep!  Cor say fairer than that now, can I?’  He flapped the famous bear and dog on his hands like a puppeteer, smiling exaggeratedly goofily.

The girl pulled a contemplative face – then spotted what was next to Sooty on the trestle table.

‘Hey, are these Mo and Bo puppets?’  Her expression became animated for the first time.  Sammy was even more intrigued and smitten.  She was gorgeous enough when she had her ‘uncompromising’ face on; when she smiled, she was a complete babe.  ‘I haven’t seen these for years.’  She picked up the fuzzy toys with a care that bordered on reverence. 

Mo the mischievous panda and his dim lop-eared rabbit sidekick Bo were huge stars of children’s TV until The Mo & Bo Show was sensationally axed fifteen years ago.  The programme was a particular Midlands cult, for it was filmed in Birmingham throughout the 70s and 80s.

‘Wanna swap this pair for your clapped out Zippy?’

‘Yes please!’  Her smile was watermelon-wide now.  It exposed every one of her little, even teeth.

‘Tell you what an’ all,’ quick-thinking Sammy sensed an opening, ‘I’m due a break, I’ll take an early lunch.  Not only will I give you Mo and Bo, I’ll stand you a hot pork cob at Bostin’ Bites.’

‘You’re on!’  She was already folding the fuzzy glove puppets into her handbag.

Sammy meanwhile was wrenching his bottle green Colley Centre overall over his head.  ‘Now you’d best tell us your name if I’m gunna be buying yer lunch.’

‘It’s Kelly.’

‘And I’m Sammy.’  He slung the overall down behind the stall.  ‘Hold the fort for us, will you, Aaron,’ he called to the sixteen-year-old with the pierced eyebrow who helped him out in his parents’ absence.  Sammy winked laddishly at the kid, belying the slight apprehension he felt.

‘See you later, Sam!’  Marlene also winked pointedly, beneath the forest of her blonde power-ballad perm.  Sammy scowled at the leery old gossip as he strode out with his lunch date.

******

Bostin’ Bites was the café round the corner from the Colley Centre; its mainly pork-related fare was the source of at least two of Sammy’s meals each day.  A heavenly bacon and egg sarnie, oozing ketchup, for breakfast or brunch; a hot pork roll for lunch; and sometimes a pie on his knee in the van home – especially during weeks such as this when his folks were away.  Sammy and the family oven were not on speaking terms.  With all the lard he consumed, it was a wonder he maintained such a lean physique – but then at six foot two, he was a natural beanpole.

It was in this cosy, busy little Black Country eatery that Sam and Kelly got to know each other over a pork roll, or ‘cob’ as these crusty delicacies were known in this region.

Sam watched impressed as this slender girl devoured the enormous bread casing of roast pork, gelatinous gravy, tangy apple sauce, mustard and crackling. 

‘I love a girl who can eat,’ he said admiringly, besotted already.

He learned that Kelly was twenty-one, lived, as she enigmatically said, ‘just outside Stourbridge,’ and worked at Brierley Hill bowling alley.

‘Talking of which,’ she examined her watch and hastily gathered up her handbag, ‘I’d best get over there.  My shift starts at two.  Thanks for the lunch, Sammy.  See you around.’

And she was gone.

I never even got her phone number.  Sammy could have kicked himself.  Sam, me old mate, yo’m out of practice!

******

Still, he could always turn up at the Megabowl and ask for her.  And this he did, on Thursday (a chap couldn’t do anything so uncool as look over-keen, hence he held out for three torturous days).

‘Sorry love, we ai’ gorra Kelly here,’ he was told.

‘Yo sure?  She’s about so tall – long black curly hair – ’

But the girl behind the desk just shook her head gormlessly at him as she went on doling out clammy, clown-sized bowling shoes.

Sammy pondered this as he ambled back to the stall, absorbed in his thoughts.

Marlene was outside the market, taking her fag break.  ‘Yo sin that wench again?’ she rasped sourly, folding her denim-jacketed arms.  ‘Her’s a snotty ’un and no mistake!’

‘What d’you mean?’  Sam didn’t want to ask – always hating to give Marlene the satisfaction of venting her crabby opinions – but somehow couldn’t help it.

‘Her clobber – and that accent!  Yo could tell as her was puttin’ it on.  Right la-di-da young madam.  Lookin’ down her freckly little nose at me.  And yo could tell her wo’ used to shoppin’ here – fancy expectin’ to get a refund!  Her wouldn’t buy her drawers from me, that’s for sure!  Marks & Sparks’ finest wun’t be good enough for her scraggy arse.’

‘Lucky me then,’ Sam quipped, though far from confident of ever reaching a state of undress with Kelly.

‘What kind of a wench that age buys cuddly toys anyhow?’

‘One who’s good for our profits!’  Sammy stormed back into the market.

Marlene snorted, mashed her fag end beneath her green stiletto heel and followed him in.  ‘Her’s probably workin’ undercover for the DSS or summat.  Not claimin’ dole on the side are we, young Samuel?’

‘Oh sod off, Marl!’

It was certainly true that Kelly was brighter and more chic than the hoop-earringed wenches who formed Sam’s traditional clientele – with their white shell suit bottoms low slung to expose their thongs, and tattoos of dolphins across their pierced, pudgy bellies.  Hence he’d been drawn to her.  But he hadn’t found her snobbish at all.  She’d lied to him, though, and this troubled him. 

But all such niggles dissolved when, the following evening, Friday, at six, he emerged from the warm depths of Bostin’ Bites with his pie dinner, and there was Kelly, waiting for him.

She’s keen, he thought with delight, well that’s fine by me!

Kelly grinned winsomely.  ‘I just been round to the stall to look for you,’ she explained, ‘but that old bag who runs the slutty knickers stand – ’

‘Marlene.’

‘Yeah, Marlene.  She told me as you’d already clocked off, but that I’d most likely find you here.  I’m on my break, see.  Thought I might be able to return the favour from Monday, like.  But I see as you’ve already got your tea for the evening.’

Sammy’s piping hot Cornish pasty seemed to be burning courage into his hand.  Go on, it seemed to tell him, ask her out! 

‘There’s no need for you to buy me a meal.  Actually, I was thinkin’ of asking if you’d like me to take you out again.  Of an evening this time.  I know this nice little pub out Clent way.’

‘Clent, eh?’  Kelly pulled an impressed expression.  ‘Bit posh, that!’

‘I can do posh when I want to.  D’you fancy it?  Tomorrow, say?’

‘Yeah, why not?  Don’t think I’m doing anything.’

‘I’ll pick you up ’bout seven, yeah?’

‘Great.’

‘Now d’you wanna tell us where you live, or doe yer trust me with your address yet?’

Kelly bit her lip pensively – then nudged Sam, as though suddenly inspired.  ‘Tell you what – I’ll meet you on the Foley Arms car park in Pedmore.’

Sam smiled jubilantly.  ‘Can’t wait!’

******

Kelly’s first surprise of the night was when Sammy rolled up to fetch her in a Jaguar.

‘Dad’s,’ he explained, ‘but I doe dare drive it to work.  The old man’d have me knackers for golf balls if parked this baby in some scutty car park and it got broke into.  That’s why he – and I – use the van for work purposes.  You look stunning, by the way.’  Kelly wore an egg yolk-yellow strappy top, typically clinging, with a denim miniskirt.  Her ebony hair spiralled over her shoulders in a swooshy ponytail.

They had a wonderful evening.  The meal was pub grub at its gastronomic classiest, and they nattered the night away.  The subject of Sammy’s family stall set the theme for a long nostalgia-trip to the loud and yellow world of bygone kids’ shows.

Kelly even fell for Sam’s lame ‘Sooty in the nude’ gag – twiddling his hand about and saying ‘What’s this?’  A primary school classic, that one.

‘I tell you what,’ Sam proclaimed, topping up Kelly’s drained wine glass, ‘if I ever have kids, they’ll be made to watch the likes of Rainbow and The Mo & Bo Show!  There’ll be none of this Teletubbies rubbish.’

‘Mo and Bo were definitely the best,’ Kelly giggled, ‘my puppets from your stall occupy pride of place on my dressing table!’

‘That guy who presented it was ace, wasn’t he – Robin Round!’

‘He certainly was!’  Kelly took a slightly unsteady gulp of her Chardonnay.

‘Those psychedelic jumpers he used to wear!  I hear he still lives round here…’

Afterwards, Sammy wouldn’t hear of going Dutch or letting Kelly pay, despite her intention to ‘return the favour.’

‘There can always be a next time,’ he said optimistically.  ‘I’ve loved tonight.’

‘Yeah, me too.’  Kelly smiled earnestly back through the glimmer of the candle which was drizzling wax down an old wine bottle on the table between them.

‘Now d’you wanna come back to my place?’  Sammy pocketed his Switch card receipt and laughed self-mockingly at the hackneyed line.

‘For coffee,’ Kelly placed equal irony on her cheesy reply.

And then came her second surprise: Sammy escorted her back to a house the size of a small Caribbean island, in Pedmore, an elegant area of Stourbridge.  It was all block-paving, remote-control garage doors and original artwork.

‘Wow!’ was all Kelly could manage.  Sammy sensed she’d expected his home to be a decrepit council terrace but she was too polite and un-patronising to admit so.

‘Let’s just say there’s money to be made in retro cuddlies,’ he said modestly, depositing the Jag keys into a shallow pot on the long mantelpiece.

Dominating the vast, beam-ceilinged sitting room was a massive photograph of a thin little boy, unmistakably Sammy, clad in classic 80s red and grey, with two immediately familiar puppets.

‘Is that Mo and Bo with you?’  Once again, Kelly became animated and fascinated.

Fortunately for Sammy, she stayed that way all night.  They had a lot of fun up in his huge bedroom – and not a lot of sleep.

Next morning, he tested his culinary skills to their narrow limit by bringing his new girlfriend breakfast in bed.  Kelly took a gleeful crunch of Special K, then noticed Sammy’s troubled face.  ‘What’s up, chuck?’  She reached out a manicured hand to stroke his scraggy back.

What was up was that all that talk of fictional characters, and fiction generally, had reminded Sammy of Kelly’s bowling alley lie, and it jolted him.  He didn’t suspect her of being from the DSS – despite Marlene’s sniping, he had no worries on that score, never having signed on, lawfully or otherwise, in his life.  But – and much as he hated to spoil a perfect date – he had to establish the truth. 

‘Kel, why did you lie to me about working in the Megabowl?  I went there to call for you, and they said they hadn’t got no Kellys.’ 

Kelly was secretly chuffed he’d been eager enough to drop in on her supposed workplace – even if embarrassed at her witless fib being blown apart.  Sammy deserved better – and he may as well be acquainted with the facts now.

Kelly put down her spoon.  ‘It sounds saft, but I thought you’d think I was a snob when I told you what I really did.  I work in the media, you see.’

‘The media?’  Sam chuckled, half thrown by the revelation; half relieved at its trivial nature.  ‘You mean telly?  Hey, you’re not from Trigger Happy TV, are you – setting me up for some hidden camera scam?’

‘Not quite.  I’m in PR, at Taylor Made Communications, a new company that’s just set up on the Waterfront, by the Merry Hill Centre.  We represent a few toy manufacturers.  Anyway, I happened to be wandering through the market when I spotted your dad selling the Zippys.  I collect cuddly toys, you see.  Most people think I’m really sad when I tell ’em that.  But you obviously don’t!’

‘I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I did.  Cuddly toys have made my family a lot of success, in more ways than one,’ he added cryptically.

‘Some people round here get a bit arsey when I tell them what line of work I’m in – and what my dad did – ’

‘Your dad?  What d’you mean?’

‘Look, when you drop me back today, Sam, could you “take me back to my place”,’ she voiced the cliché with the same irony, ‘there’s someone I’d like you to meet.’

******

Kelly’s home was in Hagley, a refined Worcestershire village which neighboured Pedmore.  And, like Sammy’s family abode, it was of palace-esque proportions, with beams featuring prevalently in its décor.

Now I see why she wasn’t keen on me picking her up from here.  She thought I was a pov and didn’t want to embarrass me – until she saw what my house was like.

‘I usually get a lot of stick,’ Kelly warned mysteriously as Sammy slid the Jag to a smooth halt on the gravel drive, ‘when I tell folks who my dad is.  They either don’t believe me, or presume I must be a snob, or take the piss out of him for being a has-been.’

Sam frowned at her curiously, but she was already out of the car and crunching across to the front door.

‘I’m home,’ she yelled up the long hallway – which Sam noticed with amazement was also graced by a huge glossy portrait of Kelly with the original Mo and Bo puppets.

‘Hiya Kel,’ responded an uncannily familiar voice.  It was male, warmly Black Country, with a reassuring, primary school-teacher inflexion.

How freaky, thought Sammy, Kelly’s dad sounds just like –

‘Robin Round!’  Sam dropped his car keys in shock.  He was aware he sounded and looked moronic – but then an 80s TV presenter was not usually the kind of dad one expected to encounter.

Not usually.

With his big, good-humoured face and rather antiquated sideburns, he was the same old Robin from Sam’s childhood – only now a touch craggier and minus the Day-Glo sweaters.

He smiled broadly and stretched out a hand to Sam.  ‘Hi there son, pleased to meet you.  Our Kel’s told me so much about you.’

‘See – even famous fathers come out with the corniest clichés,’ Kelly cringed.

******

Over tea and Kit Kats at the kitchen table, the three of them reminisced and acquainted.

‘It was pretty galling what happened, and no mistake,’ Robin harked back.  ‘We were all devastated when the show was taken off the air.  Couldn’t get TV work for love nor money.  I’m doing mostly voiceovers these days, for radio ads.’

‘You don’t keep in touch with anybody from the show then?’ Sammy asked, taking a musing slurp from his mug.

‘Not anymore, no.  But I did hear that one of the puppeteers – Mervyn Chance – was still living local.  Apparently the poor chap got disillusioned with the business, set up a market stall, or something.  It’d be lovely to catch up with him some day.’

Kelly shot a look at Sammy, who had gone very quiet and conspicuously crimson as he bit ruminatively into his chunky Kit Kat.

‘He’s in Spain at the moment,’ blurted Sammy, ‘at the family villa.  But when he gets home, I’m sure he’d love to reunite with you.’

‘You know him?’  Robin’s sideburned face creased into an astounded smile.

‘You could say that,’ Sammy grinned drily and clonked down his mug, ‘he’s my dad!’

Dishing it Out

Dishing it Out

 

Most diners did not arrive clutching notebooks, so the Evening Herald restaurant critic was easily discernible.  Expensively dressed and eating for free at table 14 on a typically animated Saturday at Gervase’s.  Scribbling shorthand between courses; shorthand that would ultimately evolve into next Thursday’s Eating Out supplement.

The guacamole (now there was a nice tortuous word to transcribe into Teeline!) was a delectable hors d’oeuvre: delicately buttery avocado fused with explosive garlic, arranged upon a bed of fragrant coriander.

To follow, a veal steak in white wine sauce, which though rich never bordered on overpowering.  It left one desiring more; in fact, it left a convenient void for a chocolate and praline terrine.  Brittle, yet silkily toothsome, this dessert was a work of art: nuzzling between rosy strawberries sliced thinly as gauze, on a vast dish ethereally dusted with icing sugar.

Fine adjectives indeed – what a shame not one of them would make it into print!

 ******

Stephanie blanched when she finally risked squinting at her reflection in the ill-fitting uniform.  The black skirt was tasteful enough, but the blouse which Michelle, the head waitress at Gervase’s, slung at her to accompany it, was a masterpiece of hideousness.

“The new recruit always has to wear this one,” Michelle had smirked with marked malevolence, clearly enjoying Steph’s goggling reaction, “so we can spot you easily.  Now get yourself off to the bogs to change – we open in fifteen minutes.  Tie your hair back and scrape that make-up off and all!  This isn’t a modelling agency!”

Steph could scarcely bear to touch the grubby white garment, much less don it.  It was a good two sizes too large and flecked with grease – but still might have looked moderately respectable had its collar not been festooned with an enormous crimson bow.

“I look like Krusty the Clown’s sister!” she moaned at the mirror.  All she needed was a red nose and a frizzy green wig.  She was waiting for that damn bow to light up and twirl around, maybe even squirt water over the customers; that would keep them really entertained.

When Stephanie dared unbolt the door, Michelle nodded with smug approval at the ludicrous shirt, scrubbed skin and austerely ponytailed hair before tramping her down to the kitchen.

“These are your new colleagues.  Girls – this is Sophie.”

“Stephanie.”

“Yeah – whatever!”

The six young harpies, with their spiteful little eyes, sullen lips and bow-free polyester blouses, exchanged barbed glances and digs in the ribs.

That first three-hour shift was utter chaos.  Back and forth, to and from the sauna-like kitchen, doling out prawn cocktails to ungracious couples while being prodded and tripped up by their sticky, demoniac children.  Ordered to attend them with the most nauseating servility.  Yes, sir.  Can I take your order, madam?  Here’s your fillet steak, sir.  (“And your knuckle sandwich, madam,” she wanted to add.)

Back and forth, back and forth.  Stephanie’s blisters were the size of baubles.  The once glorious odours of frying chips and onions permeated her skin in a noxious way that made her long for lettuce leaves.

And thus it was for six laborious months, whilst Stephanie funded her progression through college: bawled at by Michelle, alternately patronised and commanded by the clientele, scowled at and gossiped about by her fellow waitresses, blasphemed at by the chefs – creatures alongside whom Basil Fawlty would have seemed mild-mannered – and ogled by the washer-upper, a very odd, silent individual with a bulging forehead.

Until the beautiful day dawned when she collected her P45 and embarked upon her long striven-for ‘proper’ job.  She never looked back.

 ******

Which is what, three years later, led Stephanie Gordon, the Evening Herald’s newest restaurant critic, to her plates of complimentary avocados and veal at Gervase’s.  Revenge had been a long while coming, but had not some wit once remarked that it was a dish best served cold?

On a coriander bed, in this case.

Steph’s biting critique was already formulated in her mind’s eye.  The guacamole would become ‘an insipid pulp,’ the veal ‘greasy and measly,’ the praline pudding ‘the wrong side of cloying,’ the drinks ‘monstrously overpriced,’ and as for the service….

From a legal standpoint, she was quite safe.  Should a complaint ensue, she would exercise the defence of ‘fair comment,’ which permits reviewers to be less than flattering so long as they are expressing ‘honestly held opinions.’  Granted, she was expressing nothing of the kind – but who was to know?

“Can I fetch you anything else, madam?” the waitress simpered.

“Just the bill please, MICHELLE,” Stephanie pronounced the name on the girl’s lapel badge with an emphasis that was entirely lost on her.  After all, Michelle was hardly liable to recognise elegant Steph as the dogsbody whom she once garbed in a lurid uniform – not, as was claimed, to distinguish her as the new girl but to ‘punish’ her for being too pretty.  ‘Smelly Shelley’ would probably struggle to recall the name of the ‘red bow girl’ now. 

But not for much longer.  Come Thursday, she would know it all right!

A Date with Damian

A Date with Damian
By Leigh Mathers

 

I have a horrible feeling Lisa was right, thought Martine as she checked her watch for the fiftieth time, and pressed her back against the pub wall as though she could melt into it. This isn’t the most delightful meeting place. And I’m freezing.

“The Railway Tavern?” her sister had grimaced dubiously last night. “Shouldn’t you at least pick somewhere more central for a first meeting?” 

Martine tossed her hair. “It’s too late to change the arrangements now.”

“No, it isn’t. You don’t have to go through with this.”

“I’ve chosen to, though.”

“Well I’ll have my mobile on if you need me.”

“Need you? Stop scaremongering, Lise.” Seeing Lisa’s genuine concern, Martine added in a more sensitive tone, “I know you don’t really approve of this Internet dating lark, but I’ll be all right. Damian and I have been messaging for weeks.  We’ve built up such a rapport.”

“You don’t even know what he looks like.”

“No, well Damian feels it’s shallow to be influenced by each other’s appearances. He thought we ought to communicate first, free from that.”

“Hmm.”

Saying the words had lessened Martine’s own conviction in them, but couldn’t show this. “He has the important attributes, like character and a sense of humour. If he turns out to be sexy too, well that’ll be a nice bonus!”

“If he turns out to be sexy!  Oh Mart, you’re too young to be this desperate. You’re only twenty-six.”

“This isn’t about desperation. It’s just the modern way to meet. You should try it, Lise. You’re still single, after all.”

“No thanks. Just be careful, eh?”

As she shivered now, gawped at by the Saturday afternoon drunks, Martine tried to heat herself with thoughts of their online chats, which could last several hours a night.

Damian was speedy to reply when she’d posted her ad, and they hit it off instantly. He was thirty, he said, and lonely beneath his sometimes jokey front. “But you’re becoming special to me, Martine. We shouldn’t dither to arrange a meeting.”

She’d found herself agreeing to Saturday at two, outside the Railway Tavern. Now it was twenty-past, and she stamped her chilled feet frantically. “Come on Damian!”

As if on cue, three young men hove into view, bantering matily with one another. Then one – the tallest and by far the best-looking, as it happened – started to lope out of the group. “I’d better get going now, lads. Been great catching up with you again, though.” 

“Yeah, look after yourself mate.”

“See ya, Damo.”

Damo!

While his friends made tracks in the opposite direction, he strode towards the railway, the pub – and Martine.

“Damo’s short for Damian!” Martine yelped this and pounced on the astounded man.

“Yes, I suppose it could be,” he spluttered.

Martine’s heart flipped like a dolphin in a sealife show.  He was lean and broad-shouldered, with jovial brown eyes and the kind of grin that made you grin back.

“I’m Martine,” she gibbered, still clinging to him, “as you’ll have no doubt gathered. And you’re better late than never.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t apologise. You’re here now, and it’s wonderful to finally meet after all these weeks of e-mails.”

“Er…”

“Anyway, what are we waiting for? Let’s go for a drink!” Martine linked arms and, boosted with relief, nattered unreservedly to her new friend. She manoeuvred him towards the Railway Tavern. He let himself be led – as far as the entrance.

“Actually, let’s not go in here,” he winced. Martine was surprised, since Damian had suggested this venue, but decided to take it as a compliment; a sign he thought she belonged in smarter places. They walked to a wine bar.

Over their first round he said, “Now I’ve no idea what this talk of adverts and e-mails is all about, but I have to tell you it’s brightening up my day no end!”

“What!” Martine’s wineglass paused in mid-air, halfway to her gaping mouth. “You mean…you’re…not…Damian…from Date-A-Base?”

“’Fraid not. My name is Damon. Damon Edwards.  I was about to catch the train home after meeting up with a couple of old schoolmates. I hardly ever come into town, as it happens.”

After initial blushes, they laughed all afternoon at the mistaken identity and coincidence.

“I can’t believe I frogmarched you off like that,” Martine squealed again, “you poor thing!”

“Oh, I think I could have endured being accosted by you.”

“Obviously the real Damian chickened out then. Lucky for me, eh?”

“This has been the most surreal Saturday of my life,” Damon said three hours later, gazing at her over his glass, “but easily the best.”

They were inseparable from that day onwards. Five years later, they got married.

“Guess you were right, sis,” Lisa, their bridesmaid, conceded, “Internet dating does work. Well, sort of.”

        ******

Whilst Martine and Damon had been falling in love that Saturday, the ‘real’ Damian – he was calling himself Damian today at least – was lurking in his Jaguar outside the Railway Tavern.

He was late, because he hated to linger in areas like this with a car like his, and had expected this Martine to be waiting.

“Your timekeeping will just have to be punished, young lady,” he hissed, drumming the steering wheel.

If she didn’t show up, though, there were plenty of others where she came from. Girls who’d be charmed by his online humour and lonely bachelor charade – then see the Jag and forget about wanting someone gentle who could make them laugh.

And forgive him for lopping a few years off his age.  Just a few.

Then he’d whisk them to his apartment – the bachelor pad he kept for weekend use, well away from the house where he kept his wife – and soften them up with wine. He’d slip a pill into it if the girl was resistant.

These young women never reported him. Even those who could remember what happened were persuaded that their accounts would not be taken seriously by the police.

And Martine would never know what a lucky escape she’d had.

A Civil Wedding

A Civil Wedding
By Leigh Mathers

 

Claudia smoothed the ivory satin over her five-month bump, and swayed girlishly in front of the long mirror, hardly able to believe her own reflection.  She was more at home in jeans as a rule – baggy ones these days – but today resembled an exotic princess.

She swished up and down, enjoying the gown’s rippling feel on her leg, and the serene way her new cream shoes forced her to walk.  The small tiara twinkled in her softly bobbed hair, as though giving Claudia a wink that said ‘you’re gorgeous.’

Through the bay window beyond the mirror, she could see the first clusters of guests, those few relatives who had not spitefully declined their invitations.  They looked like a rainbow of chickens in their silks and fascinators, nattering to each other, words Claudia couldn’t hear.

This was a small, weekday civil wedding at Ackleton Manor, a hotel and converted country house.  It had been booked at short notice, and there were many absentees.  Their loss, thought Claudia scornfully.
She watched her family bobbing across the gravelled car park, until a knock drew her to the door. 

Violet was there, in the colour that matched her name.  Her elegant suit emphasised her still trim figure, and her hat was as wide as the doorway. 

‘Grandma, you look stunning.’  Claudia manoeuvred herself beneath the brim for a hug.

‘Violet for Violet.’  Her grandmother did a saucy little spin.

‘Joan Collins eat your heart out!’

‘Now let me look at you.  Ah, how proud would Grandpa have been!’

‘Don’t start,’ Claudia warned, laughing, ‘I’m hormonal enough as it is, remember!  I can’t wait to see Kenny’s face, though.’

‘I know!  He is an immensely lucky man, but then I am somewhat biased!  And even if this place does flood with tears, I’ll be all right.  I can sit in this thing,’ Violet pointed to her hat, ‘and row myself to safety!’

Alan, Claudia’s father, who had been hovering in his tailcoat all this time, looking pale, now hugged his daughter.  ‘You look gorgeous, my sweetie.  Absolute knockout.  Will you girls excuse me a mo, though, I’m going to dash off for a ciggie.’

‘Thought he’d given up,’ said Claudia.

‘Poor love,’ Violet sympathised, ‘he’s working himself up about his speech.’

‘A few glasses of red at dinner’ll calm him.’

Claudia glided over to the flowers, which were propped on a cardboard block.  She picked up her posy of hyacinths and rehearsed her walk, carrying them demurely back and forth past the mirror.

‘Aunty Norma’s not coming, you might know.’

‘Didn’t expect any better from her.’

‘Disowned me, in fact.’

‘What?  How vile!’

‘Called us “grotesque”.’

‘Unbelievable!’

‘I suppose I don’t qualify as a “blushing bride” in her prudish eyes.’

Claudia stroked her tummy protectively with her flower-free hand.

‘No sour grapes there then about never having married herself!’

‘Oh, of course not!  I sometimes wonder quite who she’s saving herself for, at her age.  Not that that’s the only issue here, of course.  Then there’s Larry and Cath, who’ve had it away to Gran Canaria.  They say they’d booked the holiday before knowing about the wedding, but I’m sceptical.’

‘It’s a case of being under big sister’s thumb, though, with Larry, isn’t it?’

‘Oh, he’s always been influenced by Norma.  Honestly, you’d think Kenny and I were beasts with three heads, the way that lot carry on.  Beats me how a pair of consenting adults in love can cause so much offence.’

‘No one could be more in love than you and Kenny.’

‘I know, but that small fact seems irrelevant to the likes of them.’

‘Well you cause no offence to us, that’s for sure.’

‘No, you’ve been a total rock these last few months.’ 

The two women embraced emotionally in silence for a few moments, needing each other, drawing comfort at this poignant time.

‘“You haven’t known him five minutes,” is one of the kinder comments we’ve had.  “Got the bloke living with you before you even know what he’s all about.”  “Making a laughing stock of yourself,” “scandalising the family,” blah blah.  They’ve even taken issue with Kenny being a bit younger than me.  Anything to detract from the real reason they’re all so anti.’

‘Ah, forget them.  This is going to be a wonderful day.’

‘The best ever.  But on the issue of us rushing into this, Kenny did actually suggest postponing ’til after the baby comes along.  A tiny bridesmaid or pageboy would have been adorable, but frankly I’m impatient.’

‘Too right!  What do they think, that delaying another four months or so will give them time to talk you out of your supposed error of judgement?’  There was a knock at the bedroom door.  ‘Ooh, that’ll be Dad again.’  Claudia laid her posy down gently and opened the door. 

‘Look who I bumped into.’  Alan, smelling of smoke and still looking wobbly at the prospect of his son of the bride speech, was accompanied now by the photographer.

‘Good morning, ladies.  I’ll just grab a few shots, if I may, of the bride and her granddaughter.’

******

Twenty minutes later, Alan escorted the stately Violet down the aisle.  His pregnant only daughter, Claudia, the only bridesmaid, was beaming in ivory behind them, exchanging doting smiles with her own husband in the congregation. 

Kenny stood straight as a ramrod and grinned jubilantly at his purple-suited bride.  Today was his and Violet’s three-month anniversary.  Three months since they were first paired for a foxtrot at their ballroom class.

Within weeks, the light-footed lovers were cohabiting in Violet’s warden controlled bungalow.  A month ago, they’d booked their wedding – much to Norma and Larry’s disgust.

‘I’m eighty-two, Claudia,’ Violet had protested to her granddaughter, ‘and Ken’s seventy-one.  Your grandpa’s been gone eight years now, Ken’s been divorced nearly twenty, we’re harming nobody, we have so many shared interests, enjoy our companionship, know we want to be together.

‘Your dad’s the only decent one amongst my children.  He supports us.  Norma and Larry can rant all they like about me being impulsive and daft, but actually all they’re scared of is losing their inheritance.’

Claudia now dabbed her eyes as her grandma and new step-grandpa exchanged their gold rings and vows.
She thought of the judgemental lot who were staying away today.  Definitely their loss, she decided.